Monkō (聞香): The Japanese way of listening to incense

Sachiko Tamashige

2 September 2023

The exhibition of this photo was on display until August 2023

Sachiko Tamashige offers a brief history of incense culture in Japan and the experience of visiting Kunjyukan in Kyoto.

When I smell the scent of daphne in March, I feel a sweet and sad feeling. When I was a child, the season of daphne coincided with the times when I parted with my friends and first love, such as class changes and graduation ceremonies. The smell of stall food like Takoyaki or grilled squid instantly transports me to the sights of a festival day. Like the scent of madeleines with tea in Proust’s novel, scent instantly evokes memories of the distant past. It’s called the Proust Effect, and there is no sensation that is as directly connected to memory and the brain as scent. For humans in the wild, smell is the most instinctive sense, as it helps them acquire prey and instantly sense danger to their lives. However, as humans became more civilized, scent developed into a sophisticated culture in various countries.

Japan’s fragrance culture dates back about 1500 years. According to the official Japanese history book “Nihon Shoki”, in the era of the Suiko dynasty, in 595 AD, fragrant wood drifted ashore on Awaji Island. This is the oldest description of incense in Japan, but it is said that incense was introduced from the continent along with Buddhist rituals around the time when Buddhism was introduced in the first half of the sixth century.

Incense in Japan was originally used in religious ceremonies to purify the Buddhist altar and ward off evil spirits, but in the Heian period, the aristocrats created their own blends of ingredients called takimono and started enjoying them in their living environments. Incense was smoked over charcoal and the fragrance was transferred onto clothes and hair, making it an item of self-expression. There are many descriptions of incense in literature such as the Tale of Genji.  During the Muromachi period, under the samurai government, incense became associated with the spirit of Zen, and manners and tools for enjoying incense were developed. Incense became one of Japan’s traditional three major arts, along with tea ceremony and flower arrangement.

Ashikaga Yoshimasa(足利義政), the 8th Shogun of Muromachi Shogunate, the leader of Higashiyama culture, ordered his close vassal Shino Soshin (志野宗信)to systematize the way of appreciating incense. Soshin described the different scents of fragrant woods as Rikkoku Gomi (六国五味, six countries and five flavors). He created a classification method to classify incense wood according to its country of origin and five tastes (sweet, bitter, spicy, sour, salty), systematized the appreciation of incense, and became the founder of the Shino school that continues today. Around this time, the method of monkō (聞香), listening incense—delicately appreciating the pure scent of fragrant trees—was established.

Kōdō, the way of incense, or art of incense, was formed. In Kōdō, the two main elements are monkō, which is listening to and appreciating the scent of fragrant trees, and kumikō, which is a game of distinguishing the different scents.

In Kōdō, the expression “listen” is used instead of “sniff”. “Listen” has the meaning of sharpening one’s mind and deepening oneself through the scent of fragrant trees, influenced by Zen Buddhism. But I myself cannot help thinking that the use of the expression of “listen” instead of “ sniff” about incense, might be also a reflection of Japanese animistic sensibilities. In Japan, traditional masons use the expression “listen to the voice of the stone.” And woodworkers use the expression “listen to the voice of the tree,” which can be said to be an attitude of listening to the voice of nature through each material from animistic cosmology influenced by Shintoism permeated in the lives of Japanese.

During the Edo period, incense culture spread to not only aristocrats and samurai, but also economically powerful townspeople, and manufacturing techniques of Senkō, or stick incense were introduced from China, and the method of using incense became pervasive among the common people.

In modern times, the traditional incense culture continues in Buddhism and Kōdō, and some people offer incense on Buddhist altars at home, others burn incense as hospitality at inns, or as a form of aroma. Fragrances are enjoyed in everyday life through a variety of uses and methods.

In Kyoto, the Heian period aristocrats burned incense and dyed their clothes and letters. It was also a way to enjoy scents in everyday life and express oneself.

Nowadays, we can enjoy incense more freely. There are some long-established incense shops in Kyoto, and even if you don’t have any knowledge of incense like Kōdō, you can visit those shops and experience the scents to discover your own unique scent.

This summer, I visited the Kunjyukan (薫習館), which was opened in 2018 by Shoyeido (松栄堂), one of the oldest incense shops with a history of over 300 years. Even beginners with no knowledge of incense can visit this site to learn more about incense and get a feel for its scent and how it is used. Admission is free, so feel free to come in and learn about incense without any pressure. If you become more interested in incense and want your own scent, you can visit one of the long-established incense shops in Kyoto and then you can ask questions to the staff and find the incense you like.

As soon as you enter the entrance of Kunjyukan, there is a gallery space where there is an exhibition on the history of incense, actual representative fragrant woods, and you can experience the scents of various incense raw materials such as frankincense, cinnamon, and clove through the device. You can also learn about the types of incense, such as stick incense that are directly lit, and incense that are heated indirectly, such as fragrant wood and neriko. If you apply in advance, you can watch the process of making stick incense.

Koh-labo “Exploring Incense” is a section where visitors can interact directly with various fragrances. Hung from the ceiling are white boxes, along with white poles in front of a mural of a tropical rainforest. While this space may first appear mysterious, it serves as an introduction to new fragrances. You can walk around to explore the world of incense.

Today, incense might be used in everyday life mainly for relaxation. In the old days, a traditional listing of the benefits of incense seems to be much more. Ten Virtues related to incense  “香十徳 (kōjuttoku)”, was said to be proposed by the Northern Song poet 黄庭堅 (Huang Tingjian) about the benefits of incense and was introduced to Japan by 一休宗純(Ikkyu Sojun), a famous Japanese zen monk during Muromachi period.

Ten virtues related to incense (from the English translations used on the home page of Shoyeido):

  • It brings communication with the transcendent.
  • It refreshes mind and body.
  • It removes impurity.
  • It brings alertness.
  • It is a companion in solitude.
  • In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace.
  • When it is plentiful, one never tires of it.
  • When there is little, still one is satisfied.
  • Age does not change its efficacy.
  • Used everyday, it does no harm.

Which virtue of incense do you agree with?  I am particularly interested in the first one as it shows the incredible potential power of incense and “monkō” might be the way to transcend me to a higher dimension.

About Sachiko Tamashige

Sachiko Tamashige studied social psychology and journalism at Waseda University, art history at Sotherbys and film anthropology at Goldsmith College in London. Worked for NHK, BBC, and Channel 4 etc. between 1990 and 2001 in London. Writing for newspapers such as Japan Times, newspaper weekly magazines such as AERA, monthly magazines such as Blue Prints and etc., specializing in contemporary art, architecture, design and Japanese traditional culture.

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